Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stella Doro Strike of 09- :No Contract No Cookies

There's a very interesting documentary on HBO running this month, called "No Contract, No Cookies:".

It is a chronicle of the last month of an 11 month strike of the  Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) International Union, against their employer Stella D'Oro.

Stella D'Oro was a family run business that began about 70 years ago, and it reminded me of my grandfather and dad's factories.
My father inherited his business from my grandfather, and they made high end designer clothing. It was a union shop, like Stella D'Oro, and it was similarly populated by a virtual United Nations.

These people were like family to my family. There were approximately 100 employees, and some had worked for my grandfather since the 1930s, up until the 80s. When I went to work for my dad, hoping to become a designer, he put me on the worst job in the factory, which was standing for 8 hours a day, using cobalt blue chalk powder to stamp sewing lines on pieces of silk and wool. It endeared him to them to put his spoiled brat in place of another worker, since it was the nastiest job in the place. He truly cared for his people. He was part of their families for all their family weddings, funerals and parties, and he was there for them, as a part of their family, if they needed him.

It sounded like the family who owned Stella D'oro was very much like this. This is why many people had worked in this one factory literally all their adult working years. Instead of being rewarded for dedication and loyalty, they were slapped down when an investment company bought the business, and then demanded a reduction in salaries and benefits. This instigated a fierce and sometimes vicious and vitriolic battle.

In this documentary, it's impossible not to empathize with, and truly admire the group of people represented. I wish every community in every city was like this diverse group. We'd  have a wonderful world if it was like that on a broader scale.

However, I also felt annoyed, because there was a very irritating sense of entitlement that these people had towards the owners, profiteers or not.

This is America, the land of the American dream. This was the American dream that they left their homelands for, and found in the Bronx working at this factory. They became able to buy homes, send their kids to college, and enjoy the fruits of a solid middle-class life. There's nothing wrong with that, but, on the other hand, the owners of the factory have a right to make a profit. Profiteering is not alien to our way of life.

At one point, the passionate strikers adopted a cry of "Whose FACTORY? OUR FACTORY!!!" 


It really wasn't their factory, just because they worked there. Stella D'oro fed and clothed their families for years and years, but, does this one family-owned business become responsible to them forever? Times change, fortunes change.

If they believed so avidly in their right to control Stella D'oro, and believed it was "their" factory, why didn't they try to purchase the company, when it went up for sale? These resourceful and dedicated hard workers could have  mortgaged homes, gone to banks for loans, raised money through the community of the Bronx  when the company was forced to sell, 
and relocate, when an administrative judge ruled that the company had to take back the strikers at their current status of wage and benefits.

Their battle cry echoed the proletariat ghosts of 1917, and it was eerily disconcerting for me. I came from true Bolsheviks. My relative even designed the hammer and sickle design. I know more about communism than many people, and I know it doesn't benefit the workers. It's just a ruse, and I fear that this misguided sentiment is forever altering the direction of this nation. We've already crossed over into the red zone, in many areas, and there's definitely a large population of people who mistakenly believe it their right, not privilege, to be cared for from cradle to grave, no matter what, and yet, they are never part of the solution when things don't work out. They just want their lives to stay stable.

The family who ran Stella D'oro may have needed to sell because of the very good lives that it afforded to it's workers through their generosity and the aggressive union. 

My dad struggled more and more, until in the 1970s, Jimmy Carter, opened the floodgates by making outsourcing labor and raw goods more profitable outside the USA, while taxing the heck out of US businesses. It was the virtual end of Mom and Pop shops, and definitely the end of the American garment industry, the way it was.

Most businesses couldn't afford to keep union shops any longer, and had to set up their work force in other countries, the same countries of the people in the Stella D'oro workforce, who were happy to work for a fraction of the wages.

It is a double edged sword that hangs over American businesses, who still employ American workers. First, unions, taxes, Social Security, Health care and benefits are untenable. Second, they can't compete with companies who export labor. That probably is why Stella D'oro was sold to a company that buys and sells these defunked dinosaurs of another era.

Working where you're happiest is not a right of the people, not even in the U.S.S.R. Stella D'oro's new owners offered these people a solution to make it feasible to keep their operation in the Bronx, and that was to take a cut in pay, and contribute 20% towards their health care insurance costs. 

What the heck was wrong with that? I've done that in many hospitals I've worked for. Usually, they get your pay back in spades, and try to give you bonuses as a gesture of appreciation. I've always paid at least 20% for my health insurance, and most people have as well. What's going on with these guys? 

The problem is that they were like the lost souls in Brigadoon, not connecting to other job situations, or understanding what most workers go through. Working is a privilege, not an entitlement of birthright. Just as they demanded the employer keep them in the fashion they deemed suitable, how about what they would be willing to give up to help this business get off the ground with new owners?

They wouldn't budge one inch in their unreasonable demands. When you have union workers who start at minimum wage, and every six months get an automatic 6% increase, with more abundant fringe benefits, and you cannot fire them without them committing murder in front of your eyes, you wind up with relatively unskilled people who make more than teachers and engineers.

It's this fact that closed our car industry, and sent other manufacturers out of the USA.

I'm not going to beat up any more on them, and I hope that they all fell into good  jobs by now. But, it's a learning curve for most of them, and their children, to partner with a good employer. Make it your factory by considering what the owner is facing due to a bad economy, competition from the Third World, and oppressive government and state taxes.

If they honestly understand the proletariat struggle, it would have been elevating to see just one of them considering partnering with their big bad bosses, and going to them with a proposition to invest in the factory. I've worked many places that allowed us to put a part of our pay into company stock and cooperative deals with them. It's awesome to know that only then is it really "OURS."

America is broke. The rich uncle is standing with his pockets turned inside out. It's still a great country with wonderful opportunities, but, we're entering a new era, where we have to do whatever it takes to be open to cross-training, new training, and compromising to keep a job we truly love.

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